- Modernity’s Mist: British Romanticism and the Poetics of Anticipation by Emily Rohrbach
The problems of history, historicism, historiography and their relation to British Romanticism go way back. A common critique—voiced by contemporary reviewers, Victorian critics, Modernists including T. S. Eliot, and, more recently, the New Historicist interventions of the 1980s—has been that Romantic poets are guilty of a turning away from the present, from the political and even from the ‘real’. Poststructuralist theorists, such as Paul de Man, went further to suggest that even attempts to evade the vicissitudes of the present—the Romantic raison d’être—were frequently unsuccessful, succumbing to numerous lacunae and aporia. There has, however, been much revisionary scholarship which has sought to resuscitate the Romantic poets’ historical and political credentials, and it is to this field that Emily Rohrbach’s Modernity’s Mist makes its contribution.
Modernity’s Mist looks in detail at a hitherto under-explored Romantic engagement with [End Page 185] the particular problems, circa 1800, of understanding the present in relation to the past and the future. One response to this dilemma, according to Rohrbach, involved the fictional, poetic or epistolary staging of a subject position that imagines ‘what might will have been [sic]’, which is described here as a state of anxious anticipation about the present and its possible futures that bears resemblance to the psychoanalytic formulation of ‘future anteriority’. Acknowledging that this trepidation is a human as much as a Romantic tendency, Rohrbach nonetheless finds biographical and literary evidence for its centrality to the works of John Keats, Jane Austen and Lord Byron. The concept of anticipating reflection upon the uncertainty of the present from imagined futures seems a part of that familiar Romantic yearning after what is ever more about to be, but the complications of multiplied simultaneity are a welcome challenge to thinking about Romantic desire and dread.
The introduction and opening chapter delineate the new historiographies of the eighteenth century, and the conflicts between teleological and contingent narratives which they generated. Hume, Godwin, Hazlitt and less well known figures such as William Robertson and Robert Henry are discussed in terms of their responses to the new challenges to historiography that the Enlightenment and rapidly changing socio-economic conditions and political events raised. Rohrbach describes a divide between Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, who saw the present and the future as arising out of and predictable in terms of historical precedents, and those, such as Rousseau and Godwin, who saw the possibilities for as yet unknown ways of being that could arise out of as yet unquantified human capacities. Chapter 1 closes with a fascinating comparison of Hazlitt’s series of individual portraits in The Spirit of the Age, and the ‘little histories’ of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. For Rohrbach, these little histories do not add up to a complete story and are often private or semi-private, remembered by few even of the people they concern, and such historiographical strategies can be seen to resist totalising representation and grand narratives. The spirit of the age is manifested in multifarious ways and, rather than offering a clear prediction of the future, instead dramatises a present and possible futures that are in flux, in the process of becoming.
Chapter 2 looks into Keats’s correspondence with J. H. Reynolds, including the famous ‘negative capability’ and ‘unsmokeable’ formulations of Shakespearian non-identity, before discussing in detail the sonnets ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’ and ‘On sitting down to read King Lear once again’. Disorientation and dizziness are seen to be key to an aesthetics of surprise in Keats, which aims to register the ‘goings on’ of history—something which the predominant historical and political discourse of the early nineteenth century was failing to do. This argument for an appreciation of Keats’s anticipatory aesthetic runs counter to the tendency to associate Romanticism with an attempt to reconcile the past to the present, and Rohrbach’s discussion of the works in this book puts the individual subject at the...